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The Right Time to Harvest?

What is the best thing for you about growing your own flowers, vegetables, herbs and other edibles? The journey is the thing but so is the destination – and often when we reach where we are going to, we neglect to do what it is we came to do! Does that read ‘funny’ for you? I hope not – but the general message of this article is to speak about cabbages and kings and harvesting times.

So when is the best time to harvest?

Surely this is a redundant question? Well it may be but then maybe not. See, nature is so diversified that some plants can be harvested when still green and will continue to ripen and retain their food goodness and flavour, and then there are those that prefer to stay on the vine as it were, until they are fully ready to be picked and you need to look out for other signs of readiness.

And then there are those plants that look good and can trick you into leaving them on the vine for longer, but meanwhile they lose their flavour, strength, re-seeding goodness – but do look pretty! Tomatoes can do this to a person … almost like that turkey that used to hide away so it avoided the annual Thanksgiving pot!

And then there are also those times that your container gardening harvest is just so plentiful, that you have enough … and have made your jams and preserves … and given away and shared … and still have some left! So what do you do then? Well, as I have heard said – “Into the compost bin or smoothies with you!”

The most important thing about edible gardening is that there is a best time to harvest.

Generally the quality of the vegetables and fruit and herbs (and even blooms) does deteriorate if left too long and it will always be important the harvest at peak ripeness for flavour, food values, nutrition and uses in the kitchen besides. Soggy ‘cold roomed’ picked-too-early soft fruits like tomatoes or plums and peaches or even radishes make for spoilt favourite recipes and tasteless servings. Further, fruit and vege-quality

Harvesting too early is often as bad as harvesting too late! Still sometimes the weather plays havoc with on time harvesting – so just go with the flow and do the best you can when an early frost warning gives you the option of too early harvesting versus losing the fruits of your labours to Jack. Of course if you can move your containers easily because they are not too heavy or they are on wheels, then so much the better.

Of course harvest times will also vary with climate, to which season you’re in from spring to summer to autumn to winter … to plant varietal grown and to present conditions in your garden – so there is no standard format of when to do what. This is when common sense and consistent checking come into their own – and funnily, smell counts a lot.

The more you garden the more you become adept at ‘just knowing’ when is a good time – the ripening fruits feel and smell and fall off at the right times. Like cooked egg dishes, some vegetables keep maturing even after having been picked, so you should allow for this. I wish I could be more specific for you like tell you harvest now because and/or then because – but there is no real formula available other than common sense and experience. If you grew from seeds, then go by the packet instructions and take a note on the number of days to maturity marked on the seed packet.

If you are a vegetable gardener, then you are likely to be a cook of sorts if not fully active in the kitchen. So below is a basic recipe for making a good nutritious and useful vegetable stock. I am sure many have their own versions, but for those just starting out, use this one until you are ready to branch out on your own with your own produce. It makes a person feel so great when you know most, if not all the ingredients in your vegetable and herb stocks (or bouquets-garni or herb garnishes or relishes or sauce enhancers etc etc and so on come from your containers!)

Vegetable Stock

You can make this stock regularly and using what you have available, you can change flavours and food values to suit your tastes and produce – though the method stays the same. And besides using it as a bas for your homemade soups, you can use it to cook rice and noodles, add to stews and slow cooker or one pot meals and for making ordinary white sauces zing. Just keep your reduced stock in the fridge – I avoid freezing for flavour reasons. If needs be I use the fresh stock and freeze the cooked meal (if I have to or can)


3 medium carrots, sliced
1 large onion, chopped (I also add chopped chives or garlic chives)
3 stalks celery including the leaves
A big bunch of roughly chopped parsley, stalks and all
2 biggish potatoes (optional) chopped in half but scrubbed – leave the skin on
A handful of greens again roughly chopped … like spinach, kale, beetroot or turnip tops
Any green bean
Sea salt and white pepper to taste.

To sweeten your stock, add chopped butternut pumpkin or peas or even a teaspoon of sugar or stevia or honey.

Do not add any oil or butter or margarine or any old vegetables precooked with anything oily to your stock.

Put them:
All into a large stock pot filled with cold water and slowly bring to the boil. Vegetables should be completely covered. Stock-making should not be a quick fix liquid – let it take its time to cook and allow your flavours to infuse and come though more slowly that not.

When at boiling point then turn down the heat and allow to simmer for a hour. Keep the lid on but allow the steam to escape. Stir now and then to redistribute the vegetables. After an hour, straighten up the lid, turn off the heat and allow the stock to cool on its own. Once cooled, strain and put in the fridge for your use at will. If you are not going to use it straightaway (or if you are going to give it away as a ‘gift from your garden’ then freeze it is ice cube trays) but do so immediately.

Vary your stock flavours by varying your vegetables and so you can add leeks or marrows or turnips or parsnips or cabbage or cauliflower or Brussels sprouts or, well there are very few don’ts and the only one that springs to my mind right now is beetroot. I use beetroot tops as I do spinach, but never the bulb for stocks. Garlic is a sometime optional, as some of the dishes I make using the stock do not use garlic so this I often add later to the dish but not as part of the stock. Chillies are like garlic too, never as part of the original stock – only an addition for as and when.


Refill the stockpot with cold water, add the onion skins carrot tops (not the green stuff) and other bits and pieces you trimmed off your produce while preparing them for the first stock pot. Got some crunched saved egg (etc) shells, add those too. Now bring this to a quick boil and allow to boil for some 30 minutes. Let cool and strain.

Use this ‘second stock’ to water your windowsill herb garden, your houseplants or your containers in general. If you did ever introduce an earthworm or two, they will become turbo-charged and your plants will thank you a blooming lot. Take the left over vegetable mush and throw onto the compost heap or bury somewhere – at least knee deep.

What do you want your container garden to do for you?

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